Los Angeles in the early 1920s doubled its population. As the city became metropolitan and its suburban communities began to spread out in continuous conurbation across the basin, city and county governments remained small and the provision of adequate social services for the new population inevitably lagged. Family Service of Los Angeles (known until 1946 as Family Welfare Association of Los Angeles) had its genesis in a 1925 report by social work educators Karl de Schweinitz and his wife Ruth Hill, whose "Social Work With Families in Los Angeles", produced under the direction of the American Association For Organizing Family Social Work, first alerted local social workers to the extent of the region's unmet need. But the Los Angeles Community Chest was then in only its first year of operation, and its social work arm, the Council of Social Agencies, had yet to be organized. In 1926, an initial request for funding of the report's proposal was declined.
By 1929, with the boom well past in Los Angeles and unemployment already a serious problem, demands for increased social services were being heard from subscribers to the Community Chest. Eight existing agencies pledged themselves to sponsor the new Family Welfare Association "until it became a strong, centralized agency, able to lend an efficient hand helping families in need." These agencies were the American Legion Service Department, American Red Cross, Assistance League Good Samaritan Fund, Children's Protective Association, International Institute, Philanthropy and Civics Club, Traveler's Aid Society, and Volunteers of America.
The first Board of Directors of the Family Welfare Association included five lay members and sixteen members appointed by the eight sponsoring agencies, which between them had until then handled all non-sectarian family social services in Los Angeles. A Case Committee set up to standardize policies among the agencies also included case supervisors from the Catholic Welfare and Jewish Social Services bureaus, and a representative from the County Welfare Department.
In its first year of operations, beginning on September 9, 1930, the Family Welfare Association took its intake from the Welfare Federation's Information Service Bureau, with whom it shared clerical staff, budget, and offices in the Bradbury Building. A year later the agency moved into its own quarters and nominated a new, lay Board of Directors. In later years it was often said that Family Service of Los Angeles began as part of a federation, but early records of the agency make it clear that it was created and launched as a separate entity by Los Angeles' social work community.
Although the Family Welfare Association opened with just one case supervisor and two caseworkers in Los Angeles, and one traveling caseworker in the San Fernando Valley, the agency was pressed almost immediately to extend its operations to Wilmington and San Pedro, where the Assistance League and the American Red Cross found themselves unable to deal with increasing numbers of families made destitute by unemployment. In 1931 the Association had a caseload of 1,187 families, which grew to 18,071 families in the following year. By 1936 the agency had increased its staff to ten caseworkers and had taken over all family relief services in downtown Los Angeles. In its second year the Association opened offices in West Los Angeles and Pacific Palisades, with two additional branches in the San Fernando Valley, and it undertook parts of the caseloads of an overwhelmed Urban League and International Institute.
For this additional work the agency was given additional funds, and its highly mobile caseworkers made full use of all available volunteer help. When all its allocations and reserves were used up by early summer 1933, the Association announced that it must receive more money, or be obliged to close its doors, adding that "this organization will not in any case run a deficit." Somehow extra funds were found but, when contributions to the Chest fell $300,000 short of expectation in 1934, the Association was compelled to cut intake, reduce family relief payments below the recommended budget, and withdraw services from outlying areas otherwise served only by the Salvation Army. Later that year, when substantial federal relief at last became available in California, the Association was chosen as one of four private agencies in Los Angeles to dispense these funds until federal offices were organized. For the rest of the decade the Association would lose many of its caseworkers to the better paying federal service, a problem that would persist for the next few decades.
At first only casework supervisors at the Assocation had professional qualifications. Of the six women in the agency's Metro office--and they were all women until 1939--five had B.A. degrees of some sort, three had taken extension courses at the University of Southern California's School of Social Work, and one had been enrolled in that School for a year. Although the Assocation's purpose was to serve the needs of families whose incomes or assets were too large for them to be eligible for assistance by the County Welfare Department, their efforts during the first years of the agency's existence focused on the prompt giving of relief rather than casework. In 1935 the worst appeared to be over, and the agency began to concentrate its efforts on casework, leaving relief work to federal and couny agencies. By 1936 the agency had refocused its efforts on middle income families, leaving relief for the poor to county agencies.
The 1950s saw a high demand for Family Service counseling, with a large, middle-income population of young families establishing themselves in the Los Angeles area. Outline case studies in the collection, used in caseworkers' regular seminars, illustrate marriage counseling and child guidance approaches. By the mid 1950s months-long waiting lists for assistance had accumulated at Family Service offices--a condition that would persist until the advent of competition in the 1970s, when clients could chose, as an alternative, the services of social workers offering psychotherapeutic counseling in private practice. Family Service was never able to extend its services to meet demand because of the scarcity of trained workers in the early days, and because it persisted in paying lower than norm salaries. Board of directors' meeting minutes make it clear that the agency understood the principal reason for its difficulties in staffing, yet it continually chose to cut its labor costs.
From the 1960s into the 1980s Family Service pursued its core counseling program for a middle income and largely white client base, in an era when the social service needs of low income and racially diverse populations were attracting increased attention. Family Service's response to these events, and to the War on Poverty, were minimal.
In 1970, when federal funding had begun to decline in Los Angeles, Family Service belatedly appointed its first committee to study the business of contracting to supply services to government agencies. Every year the agency's allocation from United Way was less than requested, and it ended 1974 with its first deficit.
In the spring of 1981 Family Service board members were summoned to meet with a notice headed "Cash-Flow Crisis is Here!", and asked to advise on a variety of drastic cost reduction measures, including cuts in staff salaries and pension contributions. That summer the Board hired a new CEO who began to devote new efforts to public relations, fund raising, and marketing. He made many suggestions for new programs and was prompt in devising programs for which funding was known to be available. He decided that the agency should become "a family serving rather than a family counseling agency", noting that the former had no core program, embraced all aspects of family life, and made use of a highly differentiated and inter-disciplinary staff, while the latter stuck to its core counseling program, decried the competitive environment, and relied solely on social work training. Of all the new activities begun in the prosperous 1980's, only Employee Assistance Programs seem to have been solidly profitable for the agency. Many of these were referred by Family Service of America, with whom Family Service of Los Angeles was associated. But when a staff member embezzled funds from one such contract in 1988, this source of income was lost for over a year, pending an inquiry and repayment of the funds.
In 1987, Family Service began to experience financial hardships as a result of poor real estate transactions--a lease on expensieve mid-city headquarters, overmortgaged properties, an unprofitable orange grove, and an unsalable building. By 1991 the agency was operating on a $3 million budget, with ten satellite locations throughout Los Angeles. But it was bleeding resources, and United Way, which provided over one third of Family Service's funding, was damaged in its fund-raising capacity by a widely reported scandal involving its top national executive. Allocations began to plummet and normal community fund raising efforts could not fill the gap. For Family Service's last CEO, the task was to keep the agency a "going concern", operating virtually without reserves on a month-to-month basis. Deep cuts had to be made in staffing and services, and a merger somehow negotiated with a compatible and economically stable agency. All this was done by a veteran agency director, who earned a vote of "thanks and admiration" from the board. But Family Service had not been able to negotiate from a position of strength. It had many liabilities and few assets beyond its name, and it was the name that would begin to disappear in 1995, when Family Service merged with the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center.